We were never meant to be on our own
Is loneliness the real pandemic? As the virus forces us to keep our distance from others, those who live by themselves are exposed to a host of ailments. A new dog might not be enough.
Before 1800, the word “loneliness” was seldom used.
Save the odd monarch or tragic Shakespearean character, most people lived in tightly knit groups, where cooperation, trust and familiarity were commonplace.
But in the last 200 years, social and cultural changes have meant that people have often put themselves before their community, seeking out their own careers, homes and lives.
While such individualism can be freeing, taken to an extreme it also proves dangerous.
The late journalist Deborah Orr described it as “an ideological machine for creating loneliness, a wrong turn from the progress of humanity”.
In the United States, more than one in four people now live alone. The number is even higher in large cities.
This has severe health consequences, both mentally and physically.
In Britain, 76% of GPs say they see at least one patient a day whose visit is “driven primarily by loneliness”.
A study in 2009 showed that loneliness had the same impact on lifespan as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The elderly – cut off from social and public life – suffer the most, but one poll found that 22% of millennials recorded having no friends.
If loneliness was already a looming public health disaster, the coronavirus pandemic – which relies on social distancing and isolation – will only make matters worse.
But why is loneliness so bad for you?
The root cause appears to be evolutionary. In the past, if you lost your tribe of fellow humans, then your body would put you into a state of stress and action, forcing you to find your social “home”.
Other tribes might harm us; other animals devour us. We could not fend for ourselves forever.
Before complex capitalist society, we needed others to survive. In today’s world, we are learning that we still do.
So, what can be done?
During the present crisis, many are turning to animals to fill that gap left by absent others in their lives.
Pet shops have been included on the government’s list of essential businesses that can stay open during lockdown and, as a result, have seen their sales increase.
Animals can trigger some of the feelings normally reserved for those people we love. One study found that the brains of women reacted somewhat similarly to images of their pets and as they did to their children.
So, is loneliness the real pandemic?
Yes. When a monkey in a cage loses a partner, it goes mad. As the writer Jill Lepore points out, we aren’t that different. “We hunger for intimacy. We wither without it. And yet, long before the present pandemic [...], humans had begun building their own monkey houses.” Loneliness is misery – we are hard-wired to need other people around us. The Covid-19 outbreak is reminding us just how true that is.
No. The virus is our common enemy right now. We must follow the social distancing rules and make sure that we have a functioning society once this is over. As we recover from the outbreak, we will have to work together and get everyone involved. We might all discover a kinder, more collaborative world. It will take time for society to reconfigure the relationship between the individual and the community.
- If you have a pet, have you become more fond of it? If you do not have one, do you now want one more?
- Think of a time in your life when you felt lonely. How did you get out of that state of mind?
- Start a group chat with friends, listing all the things that your respective families have been doing to keep people engaged. Choose one to do at home.
- Think about someone you know who might be suffering from loneliness. Write them a letter or message of at least 300 words.
Some People Say...
“Solitude is a beautiful thing, but there has to be someone to tell you that solitude is a beautiful thing.”Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), French novelist and playwright
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The British historian Fay Bound Alberti defines loneliness as “a conscious, cognitive feeling of estrangement or social separation from meaningful others”. Neuroscientists identify loneliness as a state of anxiety and vigilance, whose origins lie among our primate ancestors and our hunter-gatherer past. GP Ann Robinson says, “We now understand that healthy social bonds can play a key role in mental health; without them, we become lonely, depressed, and physically unwell.”
- What do we not know?
- We do not know exactly how to treat loneliness in an age where, as American Sociologist Eric Klinenberg says, “For the first time […], great numbers of people [...] have begun settling down as singletons.” The former US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, wrote a recent book on the topic of loneliness, describing the difficulty in addressing the issue. “I was never trained,” he says, “to assess or address loneliness and now, when confronted with it, I didn’t know where to start.”
- Rarely – the opposite of often. From the Germanic Old English word for “strange, wonderful”.
- The idea that people can be self-reliant and do not need to rely on others or the government. Also a theory of society favouring freedom for individuals over the collective good.
- Based on or relating to a system of ideas and ideals, especially concerning economic or political theory and policy. Its use hints at something prescriptive or dogmatic.
- A loosely defined word usually used to describe those born between 1980 and 1995 (or thereabouts). The generation of people who grew up into the digital age but weren’t born into a world dominated by the internet.
- Something that has adapted over time to ensure the survival of those who display it. Eyes evolved so that animals with eyes could navigate their surroundings. People who react negatively to loneliness are less likely to stay on their own.
- A follower of an economic system based on private ownership and free markets. In this system, individuals are seen as unique economic actors each competing for the best prices and returns.